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Education, the Individual, and the Affections: Richard Weaver vs. C.S. Lewis

January 2nd, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

If ideas have consequences, so do the affections.

I've been reading through Richard Weaver's classic essay "Education and the Individual" today.  And to be honest, I was surprisingly disappointed.

Weaver argues against a "progressive" view of education that thinks "adjustment to life" is the central end of education.   Weaver's critiques are right on target, as is his notion that education makes men free.  At the height of his argument, he writes:

A LIBERAL education specifically prepares for the achievement of freedom. Of this there is interesting corroboration in the word itself. "Liberal" comes from a Latin term signifying "free," and historically speaking, liberal education has been designed for the freemen of a state. Its content and method have been designed to develop the mind and the character in making choices between truth and error, between right and wrong. For liberal education introduces one to the principles of things, and it is only with reference to the principles of things that such judgments are at all possible. The mere facts about a subject, which may come marching in monotonous array, do not speak for themselves. They speak only through an interpreter, as it were, and the interpreter has to be those general ideas derived from an understanding of the nature of language, of logic, and of mathematics, and of ethics and politics. The individual who is trained in these basic disciplines is able to confront any fact with the reality of his freedom to choose. This is the way in which liberal education liberates.

But Weaver gives up, I think, too much, which prevents me from recommending the piece without reservation.

First, he focuses the task of education almost exclusively on the mind. He writes, "Most importantly for the concerns of education, mind is the place where symbols are understood and are acted upon."  While the mind is central to the educational task, his anthropology is a little too narrow at this point.  The human person is more than mind, and so education must have additional areas of interest.

Second, he seems to give in to relativism with respect to human values. In a crucial passage, Weaver argues:

But because different persons have, through their inheritance, nurture, and education different faculties, they have different insights into the good. One man is deeply and constantly aware of certain appearances of it; another of others; and sometimes these differences are so great that they lead to actual misunderstanding. Nevertheless, the wisest have realized that such differences express finally different orientations toward values, and that the proper aim of society is not to iron them out but to provide opportunity for their expression. Variations appearing in these forms do not mean simply that one man is right and another wrong; they mean that the persons in question are responding according to their different powers to apprehend an order of reality.

It's interesting to contrast this statement with Lewis' The Abolition of Man. In it, Lewis deploys a more robust anthropology to argue that there is an objective system of values to which the affective dimension of humans must be in alignment with.

This broader anthropology and notion of reality leads to a broader theory of education for Lewis, where the educator's task is not only to teach the head, but to cultivate the heart, the seat of affections.  As Lewis famously wrote, "The head rules the belly through the chest."  In the task of education, we open up students' horizons and impart not only new knowledge, but expand the range and possibility of their affective responses to the world, while helping them to eliminate problematic responses.

Weaver's essay is interesting, but his stunted anthropology unfortunately leads him astray.  For a more robust and better analysis of the task of education in the contemporary era, turn to Lewis instead.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.